In the middle of the summer--on the day I was leaving for vacation, in fact--Bil Browning, our illustrious editor-in-chief, put an article on my virtual desk. It was the cover story for the Village Voice's queer issue, titled "Rachel Maddow, the New Sexy: the Butch is Back, with a Poster Girl."
Throughout my summer travels, I tried, unsuccessfully, to get this article out of my mind. But I can't seem to let it go. Thanks a lot, Bil.
It's not just because the author, Winnie McCroy, looks to TV producers and straight people as the arbiters of dyke culture. It's not because the article repeatedly evokes the stereotype of butches as "mullet coifed" man-haters who see "men as the enemy."
No, what irks me most is the way that this article--and loads of other trendspotting articles about the "new" butch--get queer history wrong.
According to McCray's lesbian history timeline, there was a dark, pre-Stonewall time when butch- femme reigned "as a survival strategy." Post-Stonewall, there was lesbian feminist androgyny, "a brief [butch] comeback in the 80s and early 90s, when lesbian activists donned Dickies and Doc Martens and took to the streets to protest," then Ellen, The L Word, and The Rachel Maddow Show.
In a way, I understand why McCroy's history of butchness has to be so shallow: if she fully acknowledged the complex, intergenerational nature of butch history, then she wouldn't have her hook. The story relies on a contrast between the "old," unfashionable, separatist butch and the "new," metrosexual, TV-friendly butch.
But a good hook is no excuse for bad history. And subcultures especially need our histories as a source of identity and identification. Sharing this history, which is evolving, is one of the ways that we build community, learn from our past, and envision our futures.
And the complexity of butch-femme history is a hell of a lot sexier than what you see on TV.
Thanks to my wife, I'm connected to a family of butches that stretches across three generations. They've been recognizing each other, mentoring one another, sharing butch skills and wisdom, since the 70s. And, contrary to McCroy's assertion that butches of the 80s and 90s were "unconcerned with appearing glamorous," each has a distinct sartorial style. One of the objects that they've passed down from one generation to the next is a piece of furniture called a "gentleman's valet," which combines a rack for hanging crisply ironed trousers and shirts with a red upholstered cushion where a butch gentleman might pause to don some stylish shoes. Or polish some shiny black leather boots. Sigh.
Trendspotting articles about the "new" butch usually miss older generations of butch style. They also leave out the intellectual tradition of butch-femme writers, musicians, filmmakers, and performers. As a young femme, reading writers like Cherrie Moraga and Sue Ellen Case allowed me to begin to recognize my erotic self and to claim an identity that was not easily available in mainstream pop culture.
Hoping to share the richness of this history, I asked some friends to help me make a timeline of butch cultural production. We focused on the eighties to the present. Although you wouldn't know it from watching The L Word (or reading McCroy's article), there's actually been a consistent richness of butch and butch-femme cultural production over the last twenty years.
This list is non-comprehensive and personal. I'd love it if readers would add their own dates, artifacts, and icons.
1983: Cherrie Moraga publishes Loving in the War Years: Lo que nunca pasó por sus labios.
1987: She Must Be Seeing Things (film)
1988: Sue Ellen Case publishes "Toward a Butch-Femme Aesthetic" in the journal Discourse. Dorothy Allison publishes the collection Trash.
1989: Phranc releases I Enjoy Being a Girl on Island Records.
1992: Joan Nestle publishes the edited volume The Persistent Desire: A Butch-Femme Reader.
1993: Leslie Feinberg publishes Stone Butch Blues.
1995: The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (film)
1996: The Watermelon Woman (film)
1997: Peggy Shaw debuts Menopausal Gentleman (performance).
1998: Sharon Bridgforth publishes The Bull-Jean Stories.
The Butchies release their first album, Are We not Femme?
Judith "Jack" Halberstam publishes Female Masculinity.
1999: Del La Grace Volcano and Judith "Jack" Halberstam publish The Drag King Book.
2001: By Hook or By Crook (film)
2003: J.D.'s Lesbian Calendar and Lynnee Breedlove's Godspeed.
2004: Le Tigre releases the butch anthem "Viz" on the album This Island.
Mind If I Call You Sir (film)
2005: Toshi Reagon releases Have You Heard? on Righteous Babe records.
2006: Alison Bechdel publishes Fun Home.
2007: Felicia Luna Lemus publishes Like Son.
2008: Ramble-ations, a one D'Lo show, has its L.A. premiere at Highways.
2009: Shunda K and Butch County rock gaybigaygay.
Super thanks to my friends, Mary Grover, Abe Louise Young, Kim Alidio, KT "el shy butch" Shorb, Mocha Jean Herrup, J.J. Martin-Hinshaw, Alex Barron, Taueret Manu, and Katy Koonce for their suggestions.
Photo of Rachel Maddow from jezebel.com.